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U.S. Reviewing Military Aid to Georgia, Pledges to Prevent Russia From Creating 'Divide' in Europe

Turning a deaf ear to Russia's complaints, the Bush administration is moving to rebuild Georgia's military while asserting it will not let Russia divide Europe again.

"Georgia, like any sovereign country, should have the ability to defend itself and to deter renewed aggression," Undersecretary of Defense Eric Edelman told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

The Pentagon will send an assessment team to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, later in the week to help figure out Georgia's "legitimate needs" as a way of showing U.S. support for the country's security, Edelman said.

But at the United Nations, Russia moved to block the U.S. effort. Ambassador Vitaly Churkin circulated a draft resolution that would impose a U.N. arms embargo on Georgia, preventing the direct or indirect supply, sale or transfer of arms to the former Soviet republic.

The White House last week announced a $1 billion program of economic aid, with about half going to Georgia before President Bush leaves office and the remainder for the next administration to deliver.

Administration officials told the committee that any separate military buildup would be undertaken carefully and have in mind Georgia's support for coalition efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan and its counterterror campaign against Chechen extremists.

Russia adamantly opposes U.S. military aid to Georgia. The proposed Russian resolution is certain to encounter U.S. opposition.

In their Senate testimony Tuesday, Edelman and Assistant Secretary of State Daniel Fried made clear that while Georgia was a valued ally of the United States, American officials had urged Georgians to avoid a military confrontation with Russia.

"We pointed out that use of military force, even in the face of provocations, would lead to a disaster," Fried said. "We were blunt in conveying these points, not subtle."

A five-day war broke out in August, when Russia seized on a surprise military operation by the Georgian army in South Ossetia to forcibly reassert its authority in the breakaway region.

Russia sent armor and troops throughout much of Georgia and badly damaged the small country's already minimal military capability. In the onslaught, Russian forces destroyed a sizable part of Georgia's arsenal, U.S. and Georgian officials have claimed.

"We must support Georgia," Fried said in outlining administration policy.

The second key objective, he said, was "to prevent Russia from drawing a line down the center of Europe and declaring that nations on the wrong side of that line belong to Moscow's 'sphere of influence' and therefore cannot join the great institutions of Europe and the trans-Atlantic family."

Russia has been angered by Georgia's efforts to join NATO.

Fried said he planned to go to Ukraine on Wednesday to look into complaints by President Viktor Yushchenko that Russia was handing out passports to thousands of Russian Ukrainians in Crimea to make them Russian citizens.

"Unfortunately, there is some basis" for Ukraine's concern, Fried said. Ukraine also is trying to join NATO over fierce Russian opposition.

The United States has begun punishing Russia over Georgia. In a mostly symbolic move, Bush this week canceled a civilian nuclear cooperation agreement that carried the symbolic message of cooperation between the two old adversaries.

The decision to impose consequences was taken right after the military foray into Georgia. By acting quietly, the administration intends to give Russia face-saving leeway.

White House press secretary Dana Perino called the low-profile approach "a mature, responsible, comprehensive review of how we decide to move forward with Russia."

"We are obviously disappointed in the Russians," she said.

In Rome, Vice President Dick Cheney said the international community was united in condemning Russia's military action in Georgia and "its unilateral efforts to alter by force of arms Georgia's internationally recognized boundaries."